Postcards, the making and doing edition

When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher read Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys aloud to her 8th grade students. This might be my Summer of the Naughty Dogs. Or, Summer of the Painted Paws. And Tongues.

Friday I painted all of the laundry room trim while carrying Rocky in his baby sling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. He’s demanding human contact almost all of his waking hours. I am, in many ways, living a life similar to the one I lived when my children were babies and toddlers.

Only I’m 20 years older and geriatric dogs aren’t as adorable as my babies were. (Though they aren’t without their charms. See above.)

This week my friend S. came for a visit, and we talked of making things and the importance of doing so in times such as these. (Well, any time, but especially times such as these.) It’s good to ground ourselves in what we can do, when there is much we feel powerless to do.

She brought me raspberry jam that she’d made, and I decided that to properly honor the gift I needed to make something to eat it with. I found the easiest bread recipe (the only kind I can probably pull off). It’s in Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple, one of my current favorite cookbooks. (Recipe here.)

When my daughter saw the dough rising, she arched an eyebrow and said, “Oh, we’ve reached that stage now, have we?”

Yep, I’m a cliche. So be it. It tastes good.

Last spring (of ’19) my friends A & S (a different S) visited and brought me this little blueberry bush. It’s planted next to the ones that I already had, which have been keeping me in berries for weeks now.

I was so delighted to see that, after only one year, this little guy is also bearing fruit. I was friends with both A and S in high school, but they were not friends with each other. They later met in law school, and they’ve been close ever since. I moved away and lost touch with both of them, but thanks to the magic of social media we reunited about ten years ago. I just love that, the way these people I loved found each other and then found me again, and I now have a tangible symbol of that kind of magic growing in my yard and feeding me.

Speaking of feeding: Mother-daughter Naan pizzas. Although the bread dough recipe above is also a pizza dough recipe, my smart daughter turned me onto the idea of Naan flatbread as the perfect individual-sized pizza crust, which is even easier. As you can see, we have different ideas about what should go on a pizza. Mine has onion, garlic, and cherry tomatoes, all from our garden (along with feta and Mezzetta garlic-stuffed green olives). She favors red peppers and pepperoni. Maybe I’ll figure out how to grow peppers next year. Or maybe not. She likely won’t be here to eat them, and the reminder of this summer’s bounty of time with her, a gift I expect never to receive again, will make me sad and miss her.

Gardens can be tricky, in more ways than one.

We have added morning walks to our routine. Daisy walks the whole way, straining at her leash, impatient with the pace Rocky sets. He makes it about two blocks, tripping over his paws, and then I carry him for the remainder. He’s happy to walk, and then to be carried. He looks around, alert in my arms.

It’s good for me, too. On Wednesday I had a nice long chat with a neighbor I’d never met. A yard sign let me know that he has a child in Marine boot camp, so I stopped to talk when I saw him outside with his dog. It was good to be able to talk with someone who knows that experience, to be able to share some comfort from my vantage point several years ahead of his, and to see and feel how far my son and I have come since those weeks after he left home for that grueling trial by fire that scorched us both.

This is a different kind of making and doing. This spring, I almost got rid of the hammock. It’s a hassle when I need to mow the lawn, and for the past two years it’s gotten almost no use.

This week, temperatures were in the 90s every day. Monday and Tuesday it was 100. There’s something that’s an odd kind of wonderful about swinging, just a little, in a hammock through the heart of a hot afternoon. Something healing. I gave myself permission to do it. This is me making space for space.

I’m glad I decided to keep it.

This is a postcard from the past. It’s from a picnic my daughter and I and the dogs had one evening at the river in the last week of July, eleven years ago. It came up when I was looking for something else, the way things that haunt us often do.

I didn’t say this in my earlier cards, but it’s been a hard week. The heat. The increasing burden of the dogs. Work disappointments. Distance of several kinds from those I love. Camp Pendleton Marines dying in a training accident, and my son’s brief words about it: “It’s the job.” And then there were the things beyond just me, ways of this world I can neither change nor make peace with, and the weight of our collective pain. There was this photo, this message from the past that feels like a poem I cannot write about a future I don’t want to live.

What I would give to feel again the way I felt on that night, dogs kicking up sand as they ran in circles over it, my sprouting girl so pleased to have an evening alone with me. I can’t remember the last time I smiled the way I smiled when she turned the camera toward me.

On a day that I give into it all and do little more than sleep and eat and write these postcards, I wonder about the missives I send out into the world. Why does it matter to write snippets about bread and berries and walks and hammocks, as if such things matter in times such as these? Can it? Do they? If I write about the sweet and omit the bitter, am I delusional? Am I in denial? Am I bearing false witness if I crop loneliness and sorrow and fatigue out of my stories, or if I leave only their shadows at the edges of the margins?

Late that night a friend shares an essay, and Lyz Lenz reminds me that our stories in times such as these–all of them–are “a struggle of memory against forgetting.” They are “a struggle of nuance in the flat face of fascism.”

Reading, I understand what I often forget, and why I force myself to do joyful things even when they bring me little joy and why I write about them. It is a struggle to hold onto old joys in a new age of despair: To shape the dough, pick the berries, move the legs, still the body long enough to feel warm breeze against hot skin–and write about it. It is a struggle when such acts and the writing about them may feel trivial, inconsequential, or even self-indulgent. But they aren’t, and it isn’t.

To do such things and write about them, to remember what was sweet in the past and keep it present–even if flawed, even if lesser-than, even if the gesture feels cliched or hollow–so that it won’t disappear into some dark forest of the future, is a making-and-doing of the highest order.

As Lenz reminded me, when writers write they know: “At least I am still here.” And when we read their stories of living plot lines like our own, we know that we are, too.

Summer morning stream

We take an early morning walk, the dogs and I. It’s still high summer. Flowers bloom, and leaves, though faded, hold onto their green. A trio of young squirrels skitter across telephone lines and disappear into a cedar.

Daisy is jaunty in the sun of what promises to be a 100 degree day, light on her paws. Rocky’s drag against the pavement; he has trouble “finding his feet,” but his nose still quivers in the air and roots happily in grass tufted at the neighbor’s mailbox post. She pulls ahead and he lags behind, my arms a fulcrum to their needs.

I remember another summer day, nearly 40 years ago, when I sat in a hospital room and watched my grandmother spoon food into her mother’s mouth, my own mother looking on. My great-grandmother had been a fierce presence, and I didn’t know what to make of her—of life—seeing her so diminished, our generational line arrayed in plastic chairs at her side, feeling that it was not so much a row of seats as a conveyer belt that would carry each of us, in turn, to the place in the bed.

Rocky’s legs stumble and I scoop him up, letting Daisy set our pace. He has never been as happy on a walk as she. He’s always been anxious, even as a young dog his tail tucked so tightly beneath his legs it hugged his belly. He’s content to be carried.

“When you get old you become a child again,” my grandmother told me twenty or so summers later. It was sometime after the time she nearly died, after the day my mother and I stood vigil by her hospital bed, one of us on either side of her, soothing her as she emerged from anesthesia. As we stood there, hour after hour, meeting her agitation with calm voices and touch, I remembered the earlier hospital room and thought about how we were all one chair further down the line. Later, on the last day of her life, I wiped her bottom for her, who had once wiped those of nearly everyone I love.

I am older now than my mother was then.

I see another squirrel and think of the friend who has been raising a squirrel the past few months. Her daughter found it huddled on the ground not long into our pandemic shutdown, so near to birth or death (or both) its eyes were still closed. Every day she posts photos and videos of the squirrel they’ve named Lucky, who has grown strong and lively in their care. I remember the three squirrels on the high wire–siblings?–and wonder what Lucky has lost and gained—not that such an accounting makes much difference. Without my friend’s care, Lucky would be dead. The squirrel is, indeed, lucky.

Rocky is alert in my arm, his head moving in response to sounds, shifting so he can see with his good eye. There are birds chattering, a car door slamming, a siren not far from us. We turn a corner and see a neighbor’s chickens pecking in their cage. I stop to take their picture, noticing the clatter of traffic a block away.

My mother used to feed the chickens on her grandmother’s farm, but the chickens were long gone by the time I came around. While my elders sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, I used to wander through hen houses empty of everything but decaying hay, wishing I could have been born earlier, wishing I’d known the farm when it was really a farm.

What is a farm, now? Yesterday Cane sent me a picture of blackberries he picked from vines growing wild along Glisan, a street so traffic-choked it’s hard to make a left turn onto it. “Be sure you wash them well,” I said. “They’ve got to be covered with exhaust.” Yesterday I harvested blueberries from bushes someone else planted in my backyard. This summer I’ve eaten my own onions, parsley, thyme, and tomatoes. Neighbors have told me that my home’s previous owner liked to think of the yard as an urban farm. How many times I’ve wished for my great-grandmother’s knowledge of how to grow and preserve. I am a rank amateur. The bounty I gather now feels like the product of dumb luck and a credit card.

I think of Cane’s blackberries and wonder if my mother’s blackberries are ripe enough to pick. I think of mid-August as blackberry time, not late July. But maybe that’s changed with the climate? I hope not. Maybe August is still blackberry season up home, where I grew up, where marine air keeps the temperatures cooler. This is the first summer, ever, I haven’t made it home. The first summer I haven’t seen the waters of Puget Sound and listened to the gulls, their cries a kind of shelter like no other. My parents are afraid of infection, afraid of what I could bring with me. What are we missing, my mother and I, in these months apart we’ll never get back?

The conveyer belt is always moving.

I remember my children picking blackberries with my mother in my parents’ lower yard, water visible down the hill and across the road, a field where deer graze and coyotes sometimes lurk, and how the night before my grandfather died, my grandma and I and her sister and my cousin walked from my grandparents’ house down to the wild bushes near the railroad tracks and picked buckets of blackberries to make a pie. My cousin and I are the only ones still alive, though we’re both now old enough to be in the age group the CDC considers to be at high risk. My grandpa’s been gone 39 years. It’s been so long since he’s visited me in a dream. My throat closes when I think about how much I miss them all, how much I miss the treasures I didn’t know to treasure at 16.

I put Rocky down again, give him another chance to find his feet. It’s a constant balancing act and judgment call, being his fulcrum between life and death. Yesterday I got an email from my uncle. “I have always been optimistic about your future,” he wrote. “All you have to do is find and follow your whimsy.” My uncle, the former Naval officer, the one held up to me by my grandparents as evidence to prove work their ethic theorems (not that I needed convincing). He is encouraging me to follow my whimsy.

“She’s 7 going on 37,” I once heard my grandmother say of me to one of her friends. What does it mean, to become a child again, if you’ve never really been one? If Whimsy was never your native language? The year I was in second grade, all of my relatives gave me books for Christmas. My grandma was a little horrified that no one gave me toys. I was delighted.

I spent much of the day thinking about whimsy. Will I even recognize it if I find it? I spent the afternoon reading poetry, playing with paints and thread. Is this whimsy? I wondered.

“Maybe Rocky gets agitated because he’s bored,” my daughter suggested last night. She and I take turns soothing him. “Maybe he needs a toy.”

“How would he play with a toy now?” I asked, thinking of his legs so stiff he cannot run, his paws that drag along the ground, his mouth absent of teeth, his one blind eye. He can no longer chase his braided rope and toss it in the air, or chew on a bone or disembowel a favorite stuffy. Still, she has a point, which is why we are on this walk.

He’s still got life in him. I see it in his nose, lifted to interrogate whatever the breeze carries past him, even if he can’t chase it.

Maybe the world can be his toy. Maybe it can be mine.

Collage poem

This place could be beautiful,
right? Fresh-washed and fair,

a green that will never
again be so green.

You could live inside this rose, in
flowering bulbs voluptuous in the spring,

but the garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie,

and all winds go sighing
for sweet things dying.

The coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now.

*****

This poem is a copyright violation, perhaps–a multitude of them–but I’m sharing in the spirit of fair use, primarily because I know this won’t impact anyone’s financial bottom line, my purpose in sharing is primarily educational, and I’ve worked not to steal the heart of anyone else’s work.

Still, almost every word of it is lifted from another writer. You might have guessed, as some of the lines are from well-known poems. I tried not to change any of the original wording, but I added an occasional conjunction or preposition and changed a few punctuation marks. Below, you can see links to all of the original works the words come from (though not quite in the same order as the poem above).

I call it a collage poem, only the gathered bits are lines and phrases of language rather than images. I don’t know if this is an exercise others have used or written about; I made it up for myself years ago, when I was teaching a poetry unit to high school freshmen. It was a low-risk entry into writing poems, and it got them to read poems, which has always acted as pump-priming for me and most writers I’ve ever talked with about process.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, but this was a week in which prose wasn’t working for me. What I like about this exercise is the layers of meaning that might come, not just from the collage poem (or maybe call it a remix, if that term makes more sense), but from reading all of the original works as a collection. I also found immersion in poetry to be a healing thing.

How to start one of your own? I began this one by revisiting poems and poets I know from long ago, as I have been dwelling in the past in recent days, and thinking about time and wrestling with questions of hope and purpose.

As I started to play with the language of those old favorites (most of which fell away as I tinkered), there were two sites that I found particularly useful for this exercise: Poetry Foundation, which has thematic collections that are a great starting point if you have a particular topic you’d like to write on, and poets.org, from the Academy of American Poets, which also has collections. I visited collections on summer and illness.

(A note: These sites are not very diverse in their representation of poets; the poetry establishment favors white, male academics (see recent news of Poetry Foundation’s leadership resigning recently over their bungling of a Black Lives Matter statement). Given issues of appropriation and my own identity as a white European-American, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the work of BIPOC poets in this way, though this collage poem does contain a phrase—“you could live inside this rose”—from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet and one of my favorite contemporary writers. Perhaps I should cut it, but it seems fitting that the collage poem hinges on these words from a writer whose work examines what it means to be both of and apart from a place.)

If you decide to try one, I’d encourage you to make up some rules for yourself. My best creative works come when I have limitations, not complete freedom. If it’s helpful, these were mine:

  • No more than one poem per poet. (But I broke this rule.)
  • No more than two lines per poem, not divided.
  • You have to like the original poem. (Loving it is even better.)
  • It’s OK to add conjunctions, prepositions, and joining punctuation to the beginning or end of the borrowed language.
  • You can’t change pronouns or verb tenses.

It can be a tricky line to walk, the one between honoring the integrity of the original work and building it into the one you’re creating–but isn’t that the task of all creation, really, when you think about it? Because we never create anything all by ourselves; we are always building upon the work of others who have come before us.

Links to original poems:

fresh-washed and fair,

The green will never
again be so green

The garden sprawls and spoils,
worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

the coming night
will not lift. I am exhausted,

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

This place could be beautiful,
right?
you could live inside this rose

I wish I could see only the flowering
bulbs voluptuous in the spring.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,
but I’m singing your name now

Postcards, late mid-July

An elephant garlic from the garden, next to a one-cup measuring cup for scale. They are big and mild and fresh and make the dried up grocery store garlics seem like an entirely different food. I get about five of these each summer; each time I pull one from the ground it’s a giant tiny miracle I get to savor and consume.

This is a picture of four plants: one parsley, one thyme, and two tomato. I stuck them in good dirt that gets a lot of sun, provided cages to support the tomatoes, and remembered to water somewhat regularly. That’s it. There’s a lesson there, for how to grow things–talents, children, love.

Sunday socially distanced picnic in the park. Sure, I have a back yard. I love the back yard. But there’s something about being alone together in the company of big trees that nourishes as much as salami and cheese and olives and wine. Something about the young woman, so small, sitting before those trees that will stand long after we have fallen. All the words we didn’t exchange that I can read in the curve of her back. Or perhaps that I’m writing upon it.

This dog. He is demanding almost constant contact with his humans. It is wearing on us, to be honest, but there are gifts here, too: forced rest, space to contemplate, time to prepare. Grace for the taking. Much of this experience of walking him to his end feels like a dress rehearsal for a play not yet written. Love is a verb.

My girl, with her dog and her love. He is on the phone, half-way around the world, ten time zones away, sleeping with the bear she sent him. Every single thing in this photo cracks a different part of my heart, fissures that spread and branch and intersect. It will likely be years before I can write anything substantial about this summer’s tectonic shifts. Maybe I never will. Time is no longer infinite.

Late afternoon swing in the hammock on a sweltering day. Things could be better, but they could also be worse. When they are, I’ll bring up this photo and remember the mid-summer day of relentless heat, children running through sprinklers, ice cream sandwiches and lemonade, sweat trickling beneath my shirt, hellos and good-byes with no hugs, and this quiet moment in the shade minutes before surrendering to sleep.

What feeds us

A paycheck, of course. It is what literally feeds us. In a poem about my grandfather that I wrote after his death, I said that he “worked to eat to work,” and isn’t that true of all of us, really, when you drill down into the essence of why we work?

There is nothing wrong in that. There is much that is right, and it doesn’t mean that food is the only thing we might gain from our work. But what if the work eats us, too? What if we can’t get the balance right, between eating for ourselves and feeding the mechanisms that allow us to eat?

When our schools shut down in March, I felt an immediate easing in my life. There was more give in my day. I no longer had to pack lunches. I spent less time on laundry and other clothing tasks. My commute is short (moving closer to work is a strategy I employed in my perpetual quest to make life more manageable), but working from home gave me back a half-hour every work day. When I needed a break from my computer screen, I could get up from my desk and throw in a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher. My weekends were no longer filled with a litany of small chores. I had more time in the place in which I feel most comfortable, and more hours free from interaction with others, which always depletes me, even if I treasure the interaction.

It all felt so much more healthy.

Good thing, because as we settled more fully into “distance learning,” work became even more stressful than it had been. By June, despite the easing of some stressors, I felt jangly all the time, a wire stretched tight and constantly thrumming.

It has taken weeks to return to any kind of calm, but my body has finally stopped humming. I have had nights with 8 or more hours of sleep (not continuous hours, but total hours). I’ve been migraine-free for more than a week. I’m no longer taking hours-long afternoon naps, and my brain has released most of its (bad 80s) ear worms.

I am quiet, on the inside as well as the outside.

Joy has returned to work, the kind that fills my waking hours now: Pulling weeds, cooking food, painting the house trim, washing laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, doing taxes, going to medical and dental appointments, catching up on life chores I can’t seem to get done during the school year. This week I cut flowers and put them in a vase because beauty is starting to matter to me again. A day full of this kind of labor creates the right kind of fatigue.

I’m feeling like myself again, the self I think of as my true one.

In response to a recent post here, Kate said,

I am 100% a grasshopper. I work (obviously) but I mostly do what I love (or at least love the finished project) and always make sure to pack in lots of play and rest because 1) play is fun and 2) I need lots of rest. I admire the ant (I married one) but whenever I try to be one, I get angry, burnt out, or sick.

And it was a revelation.

Somehow, Kate’s words dislodged something in me. Maybe because they have come on the heels of all that has been revealed through the pandemic, but it’s that one little word she used: need.

What if rest is not a want, but a need?

I, too, get angry, burnt out, or sick without enough rest–which means, every year for the past 30, starting in late September and lasting through mid-June, I am often angry and/or sick and/or burnt out. This has long felt like a character flaw, or–if not that, exactly–something I should be able to do something about.

Maybe it was the messaging I received from the German side of my family, or the example set by the Norwegian farming branch. Maybe it was being so close to my grandparents, children of immigrants who came of age during the Depression and weathered WWII as young adults. I grew up understanding that life was not supposed to be easy, and that the way to get through it well was to work hard and do good and be the best you could be at whatever you did.

There is nothing wrong in that, either, but my decades-long struggle to be OK during the school year has felt like a personal failing. I have tried everything I can think of–changing schools, changing levels, leaving the classroom and changing my role. I have tried changing how I do my work, in multiple ways over the years. I’ve tried implementing a variety of schedules and routines and boundaries for work and chores and sleep and even play. A personal trainer. Therapy. Downsizing and simplifying.

Every summer I regain my health and vow that things will be different when school starts. Every fall I return to insomnia and migraine and anxiety and fatigue within weeks. By November it feels normal–it is my normal–and I forget, in real ways, that it can be any other way–until break comes round again and I remember: Oh, this is what it feels like to be rested.

Throughout my life, since high school, I have regularly struggled with extreme sleepiness. I have endured painful meetings in which I felt tortured by the need to keep my eyes open and my literal inability to do so, despite being on full display to the others at the table. I have fallen asleep standing up. I have fallen asleep while reading bedtime stories aloud to my children. I have fallen asleep during sex. My children came to accept that we usually could not make the full trip to their grandparents’ house without me pulling over to take a quick nap in a fast food restaurant parking lot because I couldn’t risk falling asleep at the wheel.

“Do you think I have narcolepsy?” I asked my therapist once.

He snorted. “No, I think you’re chronically sleep-deprived.” (He really did snort. I suspect my obtuseness about some issues really tried his patience.)

We, as a society, are so full of judgment about sleep. We associate daytime sleeping with laziness, boredom, sloth. Unless a person is ill, we seem to assume that a person who needs sleep in the middle of the day is a person who is not managing their life well.

Why?

What if some of us need more rest than others? What if–as is the case with so many other things–our needs for rest change as we age? That’s a stupid rhetorical question. Of course our needs for rest are different at different ages. We accept and accommodate this in babies and teens; why do we not do so for adults? And why do we not accept that different people have different levels of need for rest?

But let’s go further: Why do we assume the problem is within the individual, rather than, perhaps, an individual’s circumstances? What if the problem is not individual, but societal, rooted in the ways we organize our work and time? Why do we not see the chronic sleep deprivation of so many of us (1 in 3 Americans) as a public health issue, a systems question, and an equity issue?

Rest, of course, consists of more than sleep.

I have attempted schedules in which I go to bed with plenty of time for adequate sleep, but there is then little time for anything but work, necessary chores, and sleep. No time for reading, music, creative play, relationship nurturing–the things that make life most worth living. No time to just be. What if Kate is right, and these things are not wants, but needs?

Of course we can live like this. I have for decades. Many, many people in the world live with far less rest than I have. But can we be well?

These might seem like frivolous or tone deaf questions to be asking in the midst of a pandemic, when living is no longer a given for anyone, even the most privileged of us. Perhaps, though, this is the best time to be asking them.

As I contemplate a return to in-person school in the fall, and read articles in which transmission (which will mean death for some) is a given and something “schools will need to prepare for”–because returning to in-person school without resources for adequate safety measures is increasingly being framed as an intractable necessity rather than as a choice our society is making–I am seeing more clearly all the ways in which what I’m going to be required to do is just an extension of what’s been required for all of my life.

And I can’t tell you, today, what my response to that will be–because the bottom line is that I work to eat–but I can tell you this: I am utterly sick of it and from it, both literally and metaphorically. I have zero interest in being a martyr or a hero, nor do I have plans to be either. If I get sick from work and die from it, it will be tragic, not heroic. And the tragedy will not be the loss of my life, but that the loss was preventable.

We all get what we pay for in a capitalistic society. Hope everyone will remember that as we send our kids back to school this fall.

Postcards, not from the edge

My daughter tells me that it’s gauche to share food pics on social media. That wasn’t her word, but it’s what she meant. Oh well. This was a lovely dinner for three that fed my spirit as well as my body. Recipe here.

Is this a food pic? A view of what I like to call the back 40. Just because it’s in the back of the back yard, not because I have 40 acres (or 40 of anything, other than weeds). This is cauliflower and brussel sprouts. I really don’t know what I’m doing–I put some plants in and I remember to water them occasionally. There are a lot of holes in the leaves. You can read about the beginnings of this garden here.

Seen on a recent walk. I took this photo because: a) I wish it were in my backyard; and b) I wondered why that door is so skinny. It has a very Secret Garden feel to it, and I’ve always wanted a secret garden. But because I’ve been consuming sinister audiobooks, I also kind of wonder if it’s a murder room.

Well, dang. Another food pic. Blueberries from the backyard. I have a veritable bounty of berries this summer (thank you, previous owners of my home). The blue ones have been ripening for two weeks now. There are some pink ones that are just starting to come on. I made a berry crumble that I found in this book:

Highly recommend the cookbook. Can’t find the recipe online, so I don’t have a link to share. Next, I’m going to try a recipe that Kate shared from Shutterbean.

This isn’t a picture of food. It’s a picture of love. Last Friday I fell on my face and my daughter made us this dinner while I sat on the couch and read a book. I might have to see if I can figure out how to get her to do this without me falling on my face.

Rocky, chilling on my lap, looking out toward the open door. He’s a good dog. (Another image of love)

****

That’s about it for the week so far. Love and food, a little bit of mystery, and a mishap. Ingredients for a good run of days.

Of ants, grasshoppers, maps, and being lost

This week, man.

So many of you who read here are educators or supporters of educators–and if not that, reasonable human beings who are well-informed and understand how science works–so I don’t think I need to spell out the sources of my fatigue, frustration, anger, and sorrow over the past week.

Thursday, I was asked to explain how I see the role of school librarians evolving over the next five years. That sort of gobsmacked me. How will anything evolve over the next five years? After the past five years, and especially the past five months, how can any of us think we can know how things will be in five years? How we will need to be?

When it comes to preparing for the future, I have always been more ant than grasshopper. That has, in many ways, served me well, but being the ant requires knowing your geography, your climate, and your resources. It means knowing what you’ll need to survive the winter and how to preserve and store what feeds you.

After becoming a teacher, I learned quickly how important it is to use the summer to prepare for the coming school year. I learned how to store up what I needed to be OK (or OK enough) to get myself to the following June. For the first time ever, I don’t.

How does one be an ant now? Should one be an ant now?

I have long wondered why I’ve so needed the summers to recover and prepare, why working in public education has been so taxing for me and many of my colleagues. Sure, the hours are long, but many people work long hours. We don’t have the resources we need, but many people struggle with resource scarcity in their work. Over the past month or so, the debates about policing and school re-opening have illuminated for me something I couldn’t see from within our system (as is so often the case when we are trying really hard to be OK in untenable situations): The struggle comes not so much from the hours or the lack of supplies and tools; it’s from the weight of all that schools have come to carry, which includes not just educating everyone (a heavy enough bundle in itself), but also providing healthcare, social services, meals, and child care. Now, some would have us believe that the very functioning of the entire economy rests upon us.

I see that, perhaps, part of the reason my summer preparations haven’t really been getting the job done in recent years is that I haven’t really understood the landscape in which I’ve been trying to live.

As I think about how to be an ant now, I understand it’s not so much that the geography around me has changed as it is that I’m seeing it from a different vantage point. It’s like I’m suddenly viewing it from miles above, perhaps looking down through the window of a plane. Of course I’ve been aware of shifting plates, erupting volcanoes, rivers that have changed course and jumped their previous banks. Now, however, I can see the totality of those singular impacts, and how those of us working in country have been so consumed with responding to the seemingly small (yet never-ending) immediate crises of opening cracks and raining ash and flash floods that many of us failed to comprehend the bigger emerging picture. Now that I can see the landscape whole, I find myself lost. The topography doesn’t match any of my maps.

So, over these past weeks, I have been doing the kinds of things people do when they realize they are lost: forging ahead and hoping the way will reveal itself, spinning in anxiety, looking for trail markers, railing at the sky, hoping someone else will appear who can show me the way home.

I’d forgotten that the first thing we are supposed to do when we are lost is stop.

I’ve decided that, perhaps, the best thing I can do in the next week is to step off the trail: no deep dives into news, no Facebook or Twitter, no talk about the fall. No doing school-related work or thinking or worrying or wondering about school-related work. I think I need some quiet. I need some true rest. I need to get my bearings. I need to be more grasshopper than ant, making what passes for my kind of music.

I think I will take the week to read books, care for and talk with people I love, try some new recipes, take walks, tend my garden, clean my house in ways both literal and metaphorical. Maybe I’ll do some writing about something other than fear, loss, and grief. I think I need to get grounded in the landmarks I know before I can hope to navigate terrain that once felt so familiar, but now feels foreign.

Perhaps, in the quiet, I’ll read or write or think my way to a new narrative that serves me better than that of the grasshopper and ant, which, at its core, is a story grounded in fear, judgement, and cruelty. That doesn’t sound like any kind of guidepost to me. Music is its own kind of food, isn’t it? And we all need to eat.

I’ll drop a postcard next week to let you know how it’s going.

Took a recent visit to my old neighborhood. Think I need more of this.

A day in the life

In the Google search bar, I type “how do you know when it’s time” and the first autofill response that comes up is “to put your dog down.”

Followed by: to break up, to leave your church, to dig up potatoes, to move on, to retire.

I don’t go to church and I haven’t planted any potatoes, so Google’s powers of divination are limited. But I was seeking information about how to know when it’s time to let go of my dog, and I hate that Google’s algorithms correctly anticipated that.

I wish I were searching for some of the other “how do you know when” topics; many are about food and their harvesting or cooking: salmon, mangoes, pineapple, garlic. I wish I cared about food more, the way I used to.

I try “how do you know when it’s too late” and I get both “to get your ex back” and “to have a root canal.” I’ve never had a root canal, but from everything I’ve heard about them, those two things might have more in common than one would think.

I trim the inquiry back to “how do you know” and the stakes are suddenly much higher: if you’re pregnant, if you love someone, if you have anxiety, if you have depression, if you have coronavirus.

“should I” yields a mix of results that speak to the absurdity of these times, of our lives: refinance my mortgage, get a covid test, get bangs, stay or should I go. Or, maybe just of my life. I suppose Google knows that I’m of an age where lyrics by The Clash might be what I’m searching for.

It’s only when I click on the lyrics to that song and read them–rather than listen to them through a haze of alcohol and hormones and unresolved childhood trauma (hell, completely unrecognized childhood trauma)–that I understand I’ve misunderstood them for my whole life. The speaker isn’t trying to determine their own feelings about staying or going, but is instead wanting to know the feelings of another, their darling:

“Darling you’ve got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here until the end of time”

I was never, as I thought all those years ago, the speaker. I was the darling, the one who didn’t know which clothes even fit him. I never stayed with any boy until the end of time. I couldn’t, even when I wanted to. And the speaker wasn’t exercising agency, but was instead giving it away.

We so often ignore what doesn’t fit the narrative we’re writing in our head, don’t we?

Which has nothing to do with the dog, not really. Except, it sort of has everything to do with the dog. And coronavirus and retirement and faith. (But not potatoes or mangoes or garlic.)

On Wednesday morning, he threw up three or four times. He passed runny stools a few times, too. When he was done expelling fluids and I was done cleaning them up, I held him like a baby, giving the day away to him as I’d given the previous one to migraine: without any real choice.

We like to think we have choices but we often don’t. Or, we don’t have the ones we think we do.

I held him and I cried, afraid to call the vet, afraid not to. I cried because when I lose him I will lose another piece of my children’s childhood, and there are almost none left. I cried because my daughter can’t be where she wants to be, but also because when she can I will, in important ways, lose her all over again. I cried because I’m losing too many of these days with her to pain of one kind or another. I cried because my Marine son looks so tired in the photos he sends me, and because the father of a Marine likely killed for a bounty still supports the President who doesn’t really care about any of our sons. I cried because I can’t go see my parents because if I do they can’t see my brother, living in a group home that cannot risk infection. I cried because, unlike some of my colleagues who say they will not return to school in the fall unless it is safe, I will have to go, regardless. (Until, of course, I really can’t, for one reason or another. And then I will probably cry because I didn’t make a different choice when I might have.) I cried because of all the lost days, past, present and future, until the end of time.

That guy in the song? He knew he didn’t have a choice to make, either. (I’m the one who misunderstood his question.) The choice was his darling’s. And he knew the answer was trouble, regardless of what his darling said or he did. Isn’t that how it so often is?

(I can hear my mother’s voice asking me: What kind of hard do you want?)

I called the vet. (You knew I would. I did, too, even as I held the dog’s trembling body in my arms and tortured myself with thinking I had to choose.) She gave the dog fluids and medicine. She gave me handouts on how to know when it’s time. It’s not yet, but it will be, soon. She told me I’ll probably know when it is, and that often there’s no one right answer to that question.

I’m writing these words listening to my daughter talking to the young man she loves. He is translating into English a story she has written in Swedish, telling her which parts do and don’t make sense to him, helping her brain (that is past the point at which language acquisition comes easily) learn his language.

They will do what they have to do to transcend borders and bans. My son will do what he has to do, too, as will my parents. As will I. As will we all.

The things for which I will remain until the end of time are not the things I once thought they would be. But I have them. I surely do. Which makes me fortunate.

(I write these words with the dog sitting in my lap, his head resting on my arm. He’s doing better today.)

I type in “what is the meaning of” and Google gives me these options:

of love

of the song hallelujah

of life the universe and everything

I don’t need Google to tell me what I already know.

Weltschmerz to my world

Weltschmerz, German for “world pain,” was also coined during the Romantic Era and is in many ways the German version of ennui. It describes a world weariness felt from a perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is. In German philosophy it was distinguished from pessimism, the idea that there is more bad than good in the world, because while pessimism was the logical conclusion of cool, rational philosophical pondering, weltschmerz was an emotional response. “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz

Back in late May/early June, I kept telling myself that I just had to get to the end of the school year, and I would be OK. I imagined that when I could get some relief from 2-hour Zoom meetings in which much was said but little done, tasks that seemed to produce offspring tasks at the same rate with which rabbits are known to procreate, and whole days in which my butt left my kitchen chair only to feed or pee my geriatric dogs, I would start to feel better, in spite of everything.

Yeah, that’s not really how it’s gone.

The day before the last official day of work, my state’s Department of Education released their initial set of guidelines for conducting school next year, and all of us Oregon educators (or at least the ones I know) pretty much lost our collective shit. Because we know–We. Know.–how it’s all going to go down and who it’s going to land on. Increasing demands and decreasing resources have been the rule rather than the exception for decades now, but we’re getting catapulted into a whole new level of that game and when I look ahead to the fall all I can see are turtles all the way down. Or apocalyptic monkeys. And I can feel my heart start to race and my jaw clench and and and….

I just wish we could all take a moment to

Stop.

Breathe.

Tell the truth.

Get real.

And then figure out what to do next.

I’d like a collective timeout, so we can get ourselves regulated and think about what we did to get here and what we’ll do differently moving forward and how we’ll make different happen. (I know. The spring shutdown was supposed to be that, and I guess it was in some parts of the world, but not so much here in the US.)

I am not just talking about education and the pandemic. There is so much that’s wrong and hard in the world right now, but–don’t throw anything at me, please–there is also opportunity. There is always opportunity in wrong/hard. The opportunity is the silver lining of the wrong/hard. It’s the thing that can make the wrong/hard endurable. So far, sadly, it feels like we are just blowing it.

So many things were broken before the pandemic pulverized them. Instead of trying to glue back together little powdery bits of what was, here’s a chance to make things new. This kind of opportunity doesn’t happen often! Let’s seize it!

OK, I get why that’s not happening and how hard making new things is. We’ve got a whole lot of people in pain, and a whole lot of brokenness we can no longer collectively deny, and we humans aren’t at our best in such circumstances. Making new things always means losing old things, and some people are gonna cling real, real hard to those old things (even if they aren’t really good for them) because change literally hurts our brains and a lot of us would rather accept the crappy we know than take a chance on a possibly worse new crappy. We’re all scared and worried and grieving, even those of us in the (relatively) best of circumstances. And some of us are just racist, sexist, ableist a-holes and dangerous AF in the best of circumstances, so there’s that, too.

And so: Damn, it’s wearying, accepting the world as it is right now, believing it could be different, and watching opportunities slip past us, on scales both small and large. As my friend Kari recently wrote, “I feel like I am wading through Jello.” Me, too, Kari. Me, too.

My feelings of not-OKness didn’t dissipate when the Zoom meetings ended. I’m nearing the end of the second week out of the school year, and the days still have a lot of slog to them. There is some ease (how can there not be?), and it’s not all grey skies and listlessness. It has been a fair amount of that, but there have also been laughs and kisses and beauty and sun. One warm night this week I sat under patio lights, surrounded by flowers, and drank sweet limoncello liqueur with my daughter and my dearest friend and we had a long, passionate conversation about pronouns (and the intersections of gender and identity and language and responsibility and love, because you can’t talk about pronouns without talking about all of those things). There is that, and I don’t want to overlook or discount that because I am profoundly grateful for such moments. But I just don’t feel like myself, especially my summer self.

You too, perhaps?

I would like to offer a remedy, but I can’t. Not really. Moving my body more has helped. Planting things in the ground has, too. Doing the dishes and making the bed and cooking real meals. Being purposefully grateful, living in the day I’m in (so future troubles can’t rob me of today’s joy), and striving for balance between work/play and exertion/rest are other strategies I can recommend. Naps are good, too, if you can swing them.

I’d also add: Accepting the feelings. I spent a few days in the first week beating up on myself for not feeling better, and then I decided to just accept the feelings, whatever they are. Not to wallow (and there’s a fine line, there), but to just let them be and go about my business, doing things I know are good for me and others. I give the feelings their due, as they demand, and then I get on with it as best I can (some days better than others). I “act as if” as much as I can.

But honestly, the problem isn’t within us as individuals (and so we can’t fix our feelings about them entirely through our individual actions), and shouldn’t living feel like a slog right now? The world is way, way too much with us these days. You know that old bumper sticker, the one about how if you’re not pissed off you’re not paying attention, or something along those lines? That. All of which is why one of the things I’ve been grateful for this week is learning that there’s a word for exactly what I’ve been feeling: Weltschmerz.

Isn’t that a grand word? It’s almost onomatopoeic, the way those syllables sort of crash into each other on their way out of your mouth, with that hard stop right in the middle of it and that sort of drunken-sounding raspy sibilant ending. You’ve got all the elements for a party in those letters and sounds–and you can see that–but they don’t arrange themselves into a party. They aren’t in the right order.

If you, too, have been wading through weltschmerz (aka jello, aka existential depression), isn’t it at least a little comforting to know that other people have felt exactly the same way–enough people that we have a word that captures the subtle nuances of this feeling, and of this maybe-apocalypse that we’re living through? (Hey, on top of pandemic, economic meltdown, institutional instability, and massive unrest, don’t forget the climate. It’s still melting.) It’s not boredom or depression or listlessness or ennui or anxiety or angst. It’s weltschmerz, baby. And if ever there was a moment for it, surely it’s now.

You’re not alone and you’re not broken or ungrateful or spoiled. Things are fairly terrible. Don’t let the toxic positivity crowd gaslight you into thinking the problem is you and your attitude. Maybe, instead, your feelings are a sign of your wholeness and your optimism and your hope, and of your positive vision and your love for the world. Maybe it’s all the very things we’ll need to get us through to some better other side. Somehow. Some day. One slog at a time, monkeys and turtles be damned.

Highly recommend planting things. It’s like firewood and warms you twice. Or a million.

Reckoning

Until you find the emotional point of inflection that breaks apart your White fairy tale and gives way to a reckoning so personal it breaks every facet of who you have been in this farcical fable, you don’t really get to credibly say much about what is happening now or the divisions now bursting into full view.
Rebeckah Eggers, “White Fairy Tales: When I Lost Abraham Lincoln

I know exactly when I had my personal reckoning: March 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I’ve never written or talked much about it because I could never find the words to convey what happened for me, and maybe I never fully understood it until this week, reading Rebecka Eggers’s essay.

I’d had other experiences that helped me begin to learn and intellectually understand the role of race in our country, and my own socialization as a white citizen of it. I’d unpacked my invisible knapsack. More than a decade earlier I’d read Lies My Teacher Told Me and given my own children A Young People’s History of the United States. In the months since August of 2016, I’d read Waking Up White, and Between the World and Me, and The New Jim Crow. I’d absorbed “The Case for Reparations” and watched Rukaiyah Adams’s powerful TED talk on the enduring economic impacts of being Black in America. As part of a year-long equity certificate program for educators, I’d explored the racist history of Portland, Oregon and written my own racial autobiography, a 6,500+ word essay exploring how I’d spent my life largely color-blind, an easy thing to do having never lived anywhere but the Pacific Northwest, home to “sundown towns” and “The Whitest City in America.”

I thought I’d gotten it–and the learnings I’d gleaned from those experiences had been painfully acquired–but my day at the Portrait Gallery, somehow, broke through something in me that my earlier learning hadn’t penetrated. I cannot tell you why or how, but seeing wall after wall after wall of wealthy white men, with just a smattering of white women (many of them wives of said men) and people of color, in the early months of the Trump presidency, in a city of so much power, where there are such stark, visual lines between people of color and people absent of it, brought the truth of our history home to me in a way that nothing else had, and I felt the fairy tale–all the myths about America that I’d been raised on and believed in and loved–shatter. It didn’t just break my ideas about my country; it broke my ideas about myself.

It was the first of three days touring the capitol, and in everything I saw afterward, I saw the white supremacy that permeates my country. It was not simply a thread running through its fabric. It was the frame, the foundation, the underlying structure of every story I’d been told. I didn’t just understand it; I felt it in a way I never had before. I remembered my twentysomething self eschewing the idea of a diamond engagement ring because most diamonds came from South Africa, home to apartheid, which had not yet fallen in the late 1980s. My fiance and I had wondered how whites in that country could live with themselves, could live in that country, benefitting from such injustice and oppression. Thirty years later, I thought maybe I understood them. I wondered if they, somehow, had been as blind to their systems as I had been to ours. The cognitive dissonance I felt was akin to vertigo, and it was beyond disorienting to realize all that I had never seen that had been all around me, for all of my life. It was humbling. It was shameful. And it hurt. Losing Abraham Lincoln hurts.

How had I been so ignorant and unaware? What else might I be missing now? What else wasn’t real?

It was not unlike the awakening and reckoning I’d experienced when emerging from an abusive relationship, when I began to realize truths that had previously been too threatening to see. From that earlier, personal experience, I could see that my education, my culture, and my country had–like my former partner–been gaslighting me for the entirety of my relationship with them. The terrible thing about gaslighting is not only that it messes with your perceptions of reality, but also that it messes with your perceptions of yourself. You learn not to trust yourself, a lesson that rings even more true once you finally start to see all the ways in which you’ve failed to understand things fundamental to your life. You lose whatever sense of yourself you’ve had and have to build a new one.

That is where, collectively, we are now, and it all hurts. That rebuilding is also hard, hard work.

Being the person I am and have been, I don’t generally feel that I have a lot that needs saying in the current conversation we’re collectively having about who we are and are going to be, and–honestly–I’m still in the process of rebuilding my sense of self. I don’t always trust that I really understand the historical moment we are living through. In recent weeks, I have been doing much more listening than talking. Still, I can attest from my experience to the importance of having that reckoning, and that it’s not a thing you can read or think your way to or through; it’s a thing you have to feel and endure.

If you haven’t yet had that reality-breaking reckoning, I hope you will seek it, even though it is painful and is one of those things you can never take back; it’s a kind of seeing you can never un-see. I’d like to draw some analogy to slivers and their removal, or perhaps the lancing of wounds, but honestly, that metaphor is too simplistic and doesn’t really hold. The reckoning isn’t going to draw some contaminant out of you and leave you, individually, feeling all better. I don’t expect to ever feel as comfortable again as I once did–in fact, it often feels as if I will spend the rest of my life doing nothing but digging deeper and deeper into the body of it, never fully removing the shards of all the -isms embedded in it–but I still hope every white person I know, especially those of my own generation or older, will seek that reckoning, will see ourselves as just one part of a larger organism, will know that we are doing it not so much for ourselves but for those who come after us.

I know now that much of what I was raised to believe about my country was, frankly, crap–but I’m looking for the parts I can reclaim. The idea that our country was designed to evolve and become continually better is one of those things. The idea that we do hard things to make better lives for others is another. Saying that White Americans should endure the pain of this reckoning because it is so much lighter than that of those who’ve experienced genocide and other forms of oppression contains important truth, but that’s not why I hope we all seek our reckoning and endure it. We shouldn’t endure suffering simply because others endure a greater one. We should do it because it serves a purpose greater than our pain. We should do it because of what Eggers states:

“…people don’t change based on theory. People change based on a deep, lived experience of reality. In this reality, you come to understand that you have been robbed too.”

Sometimes, I feel such a nostalgic sort of longing for my earlier life, my earlier ease–but I know it was an illusion and it was a trap, too. Sue Monk Kidd tells us, in her Dance of the Dissident Daughter, that “The truth may set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

Just look at our country and where we are–really look at it. As a result of our chaotic and ineffective response to the pandemic we are dying in larger numbers than any other country, and in the face of that we are fighting each other over something as simple as wearing face masks rather than demanding better from the government we fund. Our police are shooting unarmed black citizens without consequence, as well as bullets and tear gas at people protesting peacefully. Our legislatures increasingly fail to function and are threatened by armed vigilantes. Our citizens are living on our streets, unable to afford housing and health care in an economic system we are so wedded to that we are choosing it over our own lives. We have a President who lies to us every day, fires those who investigate his likely crimes, and fosters violence among us. All of this hurts far more than losing Abraham Lincoln.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Clinging to false ideas about who and what we are isn’t going to fix it. The safe, sweet way so many of us once lived is gone. We are all being robbed, and the pain of that is greater than the pain of releasing the shackle of lies that have been told to convince us to hand over our valuables, not the least of which are the lives of countrymen who have never lived with the ease and security I once took for granted.

Go get yourself free, and then come back for the rest of us.